Last week’s most alarming piece of political news was not that President Trump won’t face criminal charges for conspiring with Russia to sabotage the 2016 election, or for obstructing the investigation of his own campaign. It was a report from Acronym, a progressive digital organization, which showed that the Trump campaign has spent $6 million on digital advertising since the 2018 midterm election.
While more than a dozen Democrats are criss-crossing Iowa and New Hampshire talking to Democratic primary voters, Trump is already running a general election campaign. Trump can be beat in 2020, but not if he is allowed to strengthen his position in 2019.
And right now, too many Democrats and progressives are distracted by the primary or Trump’s latest tweet for our own good. If we don’t focus, and soon, Trump may get the berth he needs to bolster his standing and beat us again.
Incumbent presidents tend to get reelected. There are numerous reasons for this and no two campaigns are alike, but in every case, the challenger is bogged down for 12 to18 months in a primary that is mainly litigated in four states, while the incumbent gets to spend his time building infrastructure and communicating with voters. And for all of his flaws as a president and a person, Trump’s campaign is on track to have a much bigger head start than any incumbent in history.
Barack Obama filed for reelection in April of 2011. That’s when he made his first hires, opened his offices, and began raising money. Of course, we had been drawing up plans for that campaign for months if not years, but we couldn’t do a single thing to implement them until the re-election committee had been formed. Trump filed for reelection five hours after he was inaugurated.
The Obama campaign ran its first reelection television ad in January 2012, Trump has been running digital ads for months. This has given him extraordinary running room to strengthen his standing with both his base and his persuasion universe.
For very good reasons, the commentariat has tended to dismiss all of Trump’s employees as C-list grifters and Fox News green room rejects. But while Brad Parscale, Trump’s re-election campaign manager, may look like a steampunk Peaky Blinder, he shouldn’t be underestimated. To date at least, the Trump campaign has pursued a real strategy, aggressively. Time will tell if doubling down on base mobilization while portraying all Democrats as radical socialists is the right strategy, but their pursuit of that strategy displays a single-minded discipline that is wholly absent in Trump’s governing style.
The reason to worry now is that reelections can be won in off years. President Obama’s political standing hit its nadir in August 2011. Bruised from a fight over the debt ceiling that had managed to piss off just about everyone, Obama seemed headed for defeat. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by Nate Silver with the headline “Is Obama Toast?” This is how Silver accurately described Obama’s political standing in that infamous article:
He also has a Hispanic problem and a problem among the white working class. He has a problem in Ohio and a problem in Florida and a problem in New Hampshire. He even has, to a mild extent, an African-American problem: Obama’s approval ratings among black voters are still high, but down to about 80 percent from 90 percent.
Within the Obama campaign, we were alarmed. One of Obama’s top political advisors said in a meeting that unless something changed, the only way we’d win was if the Republicans nominated someone like Michele Bachman or Herman Cain. If Mitt Romney—the strongest Republican running—became the nominee, it was likely that Obama would be, as Silver put it, toast.
We knew we had to do something to reverse our political fortunes before the stench of defeat and weakness became permanent and we had to do it while the media and the Republican establishment were distracted by the Republican Primary.
In the fall of 2011, Obama’s approval was stuck at 44/51. That was when he implemented a three-month strategy meant to demonstrate that congressional Republicans were the obstacle to economic progress. This strategy included a nationally televised address, an aggressive travel schedule, and some high-profile confrontations with House Republicans. Obama also benefited from some important economic improvement.
By January, Obama’s approval rating was back up to 48 and stayed at this level throughout the election, which he of course won with a very large electoral-college margin. For all the talk about how Romney had been done in by the infamous 47 percent tape, and Candy Crowley’s real-time debate fact checking, and empty chairs at the RNC convention, Obama had probably secured his reelection 11 months before November 2012, and four months before Romney became the presumptive nominee.
Trump is currently very vulnerable despite a relatively strong economy. He is stuck at 42 percent in the FiveThirtyEight polling average and has yet to show any improvement since the end of the Mueller investigation. He continues to struggle in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and if he loses all three, he’s toast.
This is not a call to shorten the primary or reduce the number of candidates. A long primary that traverses all the battleground states can strengthen both the party and the eventual nominee. Barack Obama was able to win Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana in 2008 because he had been forced to build grassroots organizations in those states to compete with Hillary Clinton. An establishment-led effort to cull the herd or anoint a specific candidate would be political suicide.
But it is a call for the Democratic establishment to get in the game, starting by investing millions of dollars in digital ads to make the case against Trump while the Dems fight it out amongst themselves.
Every day Trump gives Democrats more ammunition. Imagine the ads that could have been run last week when the Trump administration tried to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics to help pay for tax breaks for corporations and billionaires. There are only so many opportunities that we can allow to slip by before it is too late.
The Democratic Party and allied groups need to be in general election mode every day, filling the void as our candidates campaign for themselves. We need to define him, before his campaign, his army of free spending billionaires, and his propaganda apparatus can reset the table. We cannot rely on the media to litigate the case against Trump. Our collective attention span is too short and the media environment is too fragmented for a lot of what we read online or see on television to truly sink in with voters.
Remember the story about Trump staffing his golf clubs with undocumented workers or Trump’s budget that cut nearly a trillion dollars from Medicare to pay for his tax cut for the rich? If any voters saw these stories, they will soon forget them—unless they are drilled into their consciousness with a targeted but consistent digital advertising effort.
Some important efforts led by the Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA and other organizations are underway, but we need everyone on the field right now. Too many organizations and donors are husbanding their resources for next year, when I fear it will be too late. The Trump campaign knows that the battle to defeat him is already underway. It’s time more Democrats figured that out.